Getting people to take care of their dishes

In my role at USV, I visit dozens of tech companies, and one of the things I like to pay attention to is the office vibe and culture of the space. Weirdly, one of my favorite things to scope out in a new office is to see how that company signals behaviors to employees about how to keep their dishes and sinks clean.

This seems to be a pretty big problem at startups. Companies go through a ton of dishes, and chances are, there’s only one person who’s vaguely assigned the job of keeping things tidy in your kitchen. Because we all love to stay hydrated, the more likely it becomes that employees won’t use just one cup, but two or three — not to mention leaving a few stragglers in conference rooms or meeting spaces.

Needless to say, the art of keeping your kitchen clean (and enough dishes on the shelves) can be tricky. And each company addresses this in their own way.

On my startup travels, I’ve seen everything from basic dirty / clean signs to classic memes with Grumpy Cat to visuals with witty commentary like: “Chuck Norris can roundhouse kick these dishes clean. But you can’t. So use the dishwasher.”

But today I visited a company that decided to address this problem in another way — by getting their employees to feel more personal accountability over the dishes.

Sound like a challenge? I’ll explain how they did it.

The team that runs the Knotel Experience space in downtown Manhattan is the first company I’ve visited that has a full-time workplace anthropologist on staff. Given Knotel’s business model (give companies freedom to work and flexibility to make a space their own), they spend a lot of time thinking through causal relationships and correlations about how physical space impacts productivity.

They, too, had the dirty dishes problem.

But rather than approach this problem the same way I’ve seen from dozens of other companies (post a sign by the sink and/or dishwasher), they took on the root cause of the problem: The dishes themselves.

First, Knotel invested in 150 assorted mugs, from all colors to different designs, patterns, logos, and images. Then, as part of their employee onboarding experience, they invite each new hire to “pick a mug that speaks to them.” They get out a Sharpie marker and write their name on the bottom of the mug.

“Here you go,” they’ll say. “This is now your office mug. It’s your responsibility to take care of it. And if people find your mug lying around in a public space or left alone in the sink, your name will lead them back to you.”

Guess what happened? The number of dishes per day cleaned went down by nearly 75%. As it turns out, when people take a little accountability for something, they invest a bit more time into proper maintenance. In the end, this wasn’t a dishwater emptying or sink cleaning problem at all. It was just about feeling a sense of ownership, no matter how small.

An inside look at the Knotel “mug shelf” where their employee mugs live